ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – On a blustery afternoon at the Old Course, Tom Watson had more to do than just work on his iron play heading into the British Open, the major he came so close to winning last year at the age of 59.
He posed for pictures. He doled out local knowledge. All with that impish grin.
“St. Andrews is a place where people are just happy. They’re just happy to be here. The fans, the players, everyone. It’s a place that people truly enjoy,” Watson said Sunday after a practice round with pick-his-brain playing partners Brian Gay and Ben Crane.
Can Watson pull off another turn-back-the-clock performance at the British Open? A year ago at Turnberry, he lost to Stewart Cink in a playoff after missing an 8-foot par putt on the 72nd hole that would have made him the oldest major champion in golf history.
“Ask me Wednesday,” Watson said. “I don’t have my arsenal firing right now. My iron play is sketchy right now. I’ve got to see if I can get it homed down.”
“I still love to put my game to the test here. It’s a wonderful test of golf. This is where people think of when they think of links golf. The first course that comes into your mind is St. Andrews.”
Gay and Crane were soaking it all in, trying to get inside information from Watson, who’s playing in his seventh Open at St. Andrews.
“I tried to pick his brain a little bit about pin positions and how to hit certain shots, what clubs to use,” Gay said. “This was my first go-round out here. It’s pretty overwhelming. There’s so much to try to figure out there. It just seems you can’t play it enough times.”
As they walked away from No. 17, the hole that runs alongside the Old Course Hotel, Crane wanted to know what to use as a reference point for his tee shots.
“I hit it over the ‘L’ of the hotel,” Crane said, referring to the prominent sign on the building.
“I hit ‘em over the ‘O,”’ Watson countered.
History is against Watson pulling off another performance like the one at Turnberry.
Even though he’s America’s greatest links champion, having won the claret jug five times on five courses, the one Scottish layout where he’s failed to win is St. Andrews. He came close in 1984, losing on the final holes to Seve Ballesteros.
It will be more of a challenge at St. Andrews – with the daunting length of holes such as the 480-yard fourth – than it was in 2009 at Turnberry, which better suited golfers getting by on guile more than strength.
“The conditions have to be right,” Watson said. “I have to be firing on all cylinders. That’s one thing I learned early in life. I didn’t have to fire on all cylinders to win. I could just think my way around the course early in my career and still win. But the older you get, the shorter you get.”
One thing that won’t be weighing on Watson’s game this week: any lament about letting the claret jug slip from his grasp at Turnberry.
“That left me in about 24 hours,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “There’s no regrets at all. I’ve played enough golf to have lost tournaments that I should have won, and I’ve won some tournaments that I should’ve lost. That’s my philosophy about it. There’s nothing I can do to bring it back. So there’s no regrets. No regrets at all. That’s how life is.”
Not that he doesn’t appreciate what got away.
Said Watson, “It would’ve made a great story.”